The latest in game shows
It long ago became acceptable to admit that after a hard day’s work you enjoy settling down to the pleasing brain-teasing of Jeopardy!, but in general, game shows aren’t really reputable TV programming. Even soap operas get more respect. People who take pride in telling you they never miss an installment of Santa Barbara would never, ever own up to keeping tabs on, say, The Price is Right, yet lots of us are out there watching.
The only hour-long game show on TV, Price is organized around the premise that we Americans are lousy consumers — gullible slugs who have great difficulty estimating the cost of any manufactured goods placed before our eyes. Thus, confronted with a gold watch that, as announcer Rod Roddy bellows, ”sets a new standard in timekeeping,” one contestant on The Price Is Right will guess that it’s worth $950 while the person standing next to him will hazard an exceedingly wary $1,500. (I don’t know why, but the low bids are usually closest to what host Bob Barker calls ”the retail value.”)
The Emmy Award-winning Barker, a silver fox who’s famous for being anti- fur, presides with remarkable grace and calm over television’s most screechy contestants, most garish stage set, and most voluptuous assistants (the appallingly named ”Barker’s Beauties”). Basically, there are few moods to which The Price Is Right does not appeal; it is all-purpose television at its sturdiest.
Price is TV’s longest-running game show, and as a rule it’s the older ones that remain the most entertaining. Recent game-show ventures such as Trump Card and MTV’s smug game spoof Remote Control were dull, but an old standby like The $100,000 Pyramid is absolutely indestructible. The object of the game is simple and instantly involving: ”The category is ‘Nothing’s at Steak’ — describe for your partner these things associated with beef. You have 30 seconds — go!”
Here is a game show so strong it can even withstand the presence of John Davidson as its host. Davidson, whose cavernous dimples are swimming pools for flop sweat these days, has taken over from the serenely cool Dick Clark. The brisk pace of Pyramid seems to have Davidson flummoxed — it’s as if he doesn’t quite have all the rules down. Well, that’s what he gets for letting his brain turn to jelly during his years on The Hollywood Squares.
Pyramid was recently Dimple Depot when thirtysomething’s Mel Harris brought her own formidable pair to the show. Harris indirectly inspired a classic Pyramidal moment: After failing to get her partner to utter the winning phrase ”Things on the Bottom,” Harris asked the studio audience what clues she should have given. ”A missionary’s wife,” shouted one wag. There was a stunned ; silence while the answer sunk in. ”Hey, great clue,” said our Mel, dimples flexing around an impish smile. Davidson, however, looked as if he might faint any second.
Pyramid, it is clear, repays close attention. By contrast, I have discovered a different way to extract enjoyment from Family Feud. The idea behind Feud is that two teams, each made up of related people, must guess how a poll of 100 ordinary folks answered a given question. ”Where would you keep spare money at home?” was a recent query. One family put its heads together and actually came up with the answer ”In the hamper.” MMMMMMrrrpp! went the buzzer: wrong! (The No. 1 response, by the way, was ”In a cookie jar” — some habits are timeless, eh?)
Most people remember Feud from its ’70s incarnation, when then host Richard Dawson raised kissy-kissy smarm to unprecedented heights. But since 1988, the wry stand-up comic Ray Combs, who looks like a preshrunk Burt Reynolds, has led the proceedings. The actual game playing of Feud can be awfully numbing- after all, you don’t have to know anything, you just have to be able to guess what your fellow Americans blurted out when polled.
But with my revised method of watching, Feud can become complex and engrossing — even (heh, heh) deeply troubling. The idea is to forget the game but watch the family interaction very carefully. When the clan is all lined up to ”play the Feud,” as they say, does the man of the house take the leadoff position? Does he grip his wife’s hand for reassurance, or does he reach around her back to squeeze the shoulder of his sister-in-law? Hmmmm…
Watch closely: Does a father clap his son on the shoulder and yell, ”Good answer, good answer!” when his dorky progeny has actually emitted a response so stupid it would embarrass a laboratory rat? And if Dad offers such positive reinforcement, is he encouraging Junior’s foolishness? If he doesn’t, is he ignoring his son’s inarticulate cry for emotional support? I tell you, if you play armchair psychologist with this show — turning it into Family Freud — you’ll have a lot more fun.
The Price Is Right: B+
The $100,000 Pyramid: A
Family Feud: B-